Category Archives: Spiritual Exercises

Exercise 71: Find your hope

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Background: Today’s practice is deeply inspired by Resmaa Menakem’sMy Grandmother’s Hands.‘  I am including it here because  this important book is something that everyone should be reading right now.  It is explores questions of race, white supremacy, and trauma by exploring where these things live in our bodies.  It is not easy work for an old white guy like me; but it is important work.  Contemplatives and those who love spiritual practice might find this approach to be a powerful one.  Each chapter features practices like this one.

To be honest, I am a little hesitant about sharing this practice here.  I think that this practice could have lots of positives not related to exploring racial trauma and white body supremacy.  And this is my concern: I would not want to co-opt and distract from this important work.  I am also aware and sensetive to the issues around white people stealing the work of black people without approprite credit and attibution.  The best I know how to do in this regard it to state again, emphatically, that regardless of your background or history Resmaa Menakem’s excellent ‘My Grandmother’s Hands’ should be on your reading list.

The Practice

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Wiggle your toes.
  2. Become aware of your skin.  Note where it is sitting under cloth and where it is exposed to the air.  Feel the textures and the temperatures, the moisture and movement of air.
  3. Note where you are sitting.  Feel the pull of gravity pulling you down and the support of your chair, cushion, or floor supporting you upward.  Note the softness or hardness of the places where you are back, butt, and legs touch whatever you are sitting on.
  4. Can you sense hope in your body?  Where is that hope living right now, at this moment?  Does it move or change with your breath?  Is there excitement living with your hope?  Anxiety?
  5. What specific desires come with finding this hope in your body: what is it that you are hoping for?  Healing?   Success?  Do you have hopes around racial trauma and moving past the hurts you have recieved or the hurt your actions have caused?
  6. Can you find any fear in your body?  Where is it?  Does it move or spread?  Does it feel growing and alive or dead and cut off?  Sit with your fear, for a moment.
  7. Explore the specifics of this fear to the extent that it is safe, wise, and kind to yourself to do so.  What is it that you are afraid of?  Does this fear imply anything about your relationship to future events?
  8.   Hold the hope and the fear.  Experience them both fully in your body.  Take your time with this step.  This is a microcosm for the experience of what it is to be human.
  9. Return to checking in with your body.  Notice the way your breath feels.  If you would like to continue but need a moment, take that moment, and then take another.  You can return to a focus on your body by checking in with your sensory experiences that are happening now: listen, for example, for three sounds in your environment.  Look around and name for things.  Take a deep breath and smell the air.  Inquire into your taste buds and see if there is a taste in your mouth.
  10. If you would like to continue, you can hold search for and hold other dualities.  Begin by choosing one item from the pairings listed below; (or, of course choose something not listed.)  Some pairings you might try: love/apathy; acceptance/anxiety; like/ dislike; joy/sorrow; admiration/disdain.
  11. To the extent you can, find where that first element lives in your body.
  12. Explore how it feels and moves within.
  13.  Identify some of the  specific ways that this might pop up in your life.
  14. Find the opposite in your body.
  15. Explore how the opposite feels and moves within.
  16.  Identify some of the specific ways that this might pop up in your life.
  17. Spend a moment just holding the both of these oppposites together.
  18.  If you wish, hold this pair as you return to an earlier pair, such as hope and fear.

 

Exercise 70: Naming (best as a contemplative walk)

Background-   this practice could be connected with a wide array of inspirations.

  • Mindfulness and many other Buddhist practice speak about the importance of noting the specifics of the situation we find ourselves in as noted by our senses. Sometimes this is described as noting the ‘thisness and thusness’ of where we find ourselves.
  • In the book of Genesis, Adam was given the task of naming things in the Garden of Eden.
  • Francis is known to have described the living and nonliving things around him with familial titles: for example ‘sister moon’ and ‘brother sun.’

 

This practice is ideally done as a contemplative walk.  A good contemplative walk carries a tension within it.  Of course safety is ultimately important.  Therefore, diverting some attention to an awareness of how to get home and ensuring that we don’t walk into an unsafe situation are very important.  Walking into an unsafe situation might be failing to look both ways before we cross a street.  It also might be making sure we don’t wander into neighborhood that is unsafe for us.

However, being too planful takes some of the power out of a contemplative practice.  I believe in something larger than us that will guide our steps when we are willing to cede control of our destination.  Even if I am wrong on that, it is clear that being too strategic and logical ends up giving over a certain measure of headspace over to the logical, planning side of our brain.  As a result, we end up not being as fully contemplative as we might have hoped for.

If a walk does not make sense for you right now, much of this practice can be applied to a more sedentary approach.   A practitioner might find value in applying this practice to a place they think they know very well.  It can be surprising the things we discover when we look at familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.  Alternatively, Finding a seat with unfamiliar surroundings can also bring new discoveries.

Before beginning the practice description, I would like to own and name the reality that this practice can feel a bit silly.  The internal monologue would look rather amusing if viewed out of context.  I believe that a little silliness if quite a powerful thing.  Most of us (including me) are entirely too grim and somber about our spiritual practice.

The Practice

1.  Begin a walk with a cultivated sense of purposelessness.

2.  Identify something in your field of vision.  Greet and name it.  (e.g. ‘hello tree with yellow leaves on the north side.’  or ‘Hi, fire hydrant with a rusty chain.’)  work at noticing and naming in a way that identifies the uniqueness of this one particular thing you are seeing.

3.  Note, name, and greet the next thing in your field of vision as you continue your walk.  The goal is to produce a nearly nonstop litany of the things you encounter.  If someone were to hear your thoughts, it might almost sound like a guided tour of the walk.

4.  As you continue the walk, see if you can apply it to sounds or smells.

5.  You can similarly greet feelings, thoughts and memories as they come up for you.

 

Exercise 69: Box Breathing

Background for 69A: Box breathing is a mindfullness practice.  It begins by identifying 4 points:  the inhale, the pause after the inhale, the exhale, and the pause after the exhale.  Practioners are invited to imagine a box and circle their attention around each side with each of the four parts of the breath.

Mindfulness offers up many tools.   I find these tools very useful in enhancing my experiences of other types of spiritual practice.  One of the most basic principles of mindfulness is to anchor ourselves in this present moment  with the information the 5 senses provide.  One of the challenges with this sensory data is to receive it in  a manner which is as concept-free as possible.

Thus, in mindfulness, it is  good start to notice the feeling of the breeze on my hand.  It is better to disengage my knowledge that it is a breeze and to simply tune in to the feeling on my hand.  It is even better than that to release my concept knowledge that I have a hand: the goal is to simply experience that sensation as something that is occuring.

It is powerful to attend to the breath for as long as we are able.  Perhaps that is just for a part of the inhale.  Perhaps we are able to stay fully in our breath for all 4 “sides” of the “box.”

Two versions of this practice are presented here.  It is worth being reflective on how the two different prescriptions for breath-lengths leave you feeling.

Practice 69A

  1.  Place the feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath.
  2. Inhale for a count of four.
  3. Pause for a count of four.
  4. Exhale for a count of four.  
  5. Pause for a count of four.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5.  This time, stay with the breath for as long as you can.  
  7. Repeat steps 2-5, imagining that each 4-count takes a finger to the end of a side of a box.  As you move on to the next corner of the box, you have entered a new part of the breath.
  8. Continue this 4-part 4 -count, either staying in the breath or imagining the box.  Note how this leaves you feeling.  After this reflection, you may wish to move on to practice 69B.

Background to 69B

It might be helpful to recall the shape of a trapezoid from your last geometry class.   download

For this practice, it’s helpful to envision a box of the shape shown above.  We could imagine that this box had legs of 3 feet.  We could imagine the smaller, upper base was 4 feet, and we could imagine that the lower, longer base was 5 feet.

Practice 69B:

  1.  Place the feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath.
  2. Inhale for a count of four.
  3. Pause for a count of  three.
  4. Exhale for a count of  five.  
  5. Pause for a count of three.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5.  This time, stay with the breath for as long as you can.  
  7. Repeat steps 2-5, imagining that each breath part covers the time it takes a finger to the end of a side of a box.  As you move on to the next corner of the box, you have entered a new part of the breath.
  8. Continue this pattern, either staying in the breath or imagining the box.  Note how this leaves you feeling.  This is your practice.  Please consider changing the lengths for a duration which is more comfortable.  One important thing is the regularity: choosing numbers and sticking with them.  Another important thing is the mere presence to the breath and attention to how that feels in the rest of the body.

Exercise 68: Sati/ Mindfulness meditation

Background:  This spiritual practice will introduce a few different approaches to staying present.  The overaching idea with mindfulness is to meditate by locating ourself in the present. One of the way that this is done is through recognizing when we are having having intrusive thoughts or sensations by simply and gently witnessing these: watching them come and go.  I find this powerful because identifying their coming and leaving is a way to remind myself that I am not the same as these thoughts, and as I do this I am shown that this is what the mind does– it thinks and feels things.

A second major feature of this practice is to locate the self with the physical sensations we are noticing now.  Most often these are the sensations of breath.

There are some related spiritual practices listed at this website.  I am sharing this practice to introduce a handful of new possibilities.  A few different possibilities are featured in each of the practices below.  I suggest trying each of them and then picking and choosing your favorite aspects of each of the practices below.

 

Practice 68A

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  See yourself as sitting on a seat between heaven and Earth.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the abdomen: feel it pushing out with the inhales, and moving in, toward the spine, with the exhales.  
  4. Listen for a noise in your environment, when it comes up, notice how you can’t control it’s coming or coming.
  5. Return to your abdominal breathing.
  6. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  Observe how they are like the noises: they come and go.
  7. Return to noticing how the breath feels in your body.  
  8. Continue this process for the time you had alotted.

 

Practice 68B

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  
  2. Close your eyes.  Be aware that even with your eyes closed, you can still observe differences in the visual field.  Your eyes work even with the lids down.  Center yourself in this present moment by seeing what you see with the eyes closed.
  3. Find your breath.  
  4. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  
  5. Return to noticing how the breath feels in your body, or to that darkened visual field.
  6. Continue this process.

 

Practice 68C

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  See yourself as sitting on a seat between heaven and Earth.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the place where the air comes in and out of the nostrils.  Feel the change in temperature and pressure as it comes in and out.
  4. How long can you be fully present, with no wandering of mind: the length of an inhale?  The length of the whole breath?
  5. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  Then return to being aware of the breath in the nostril.
  6. When the time you had set aside for this practice is complete, know that you can retun to this state, even for just a minute or two, through out the day.

Practice 68D

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the subtle movement in the middle/side of the very lowest ribs.  Feel their slow movement as the lungs fill and empty.
  4. Listen for a noise in your environment, when it comes up, notice how you can’t control it’s coming or coming.
  5. With your next inhale, simply think ‘in.’  If you wish, in your mind’s gentle voice, you can hear this sound for the full length of the inhale: ‘iiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnn’
  6. With your next exhale, simply think ‘out.’  If you wish, in your mind’s gentle voice you can hear this for the full length of the exhale: ‘oooouuuuutttttt.’
  7. As distractions arise– and they will– notice the distraction as it comes and goes, and then return to the naming of the inhales and the exhales.  
  8. Continue this process for the length of time you had decided on today.
  9.   When stressful and difficult moments through out your day arrive, return to being fully present for the breath.

 

 

Exercise 67: Tonglen for Times of Division and Strife

Background:  Sometimes I hover on the edge of paralysis; I am nearly overwhelmed.  Even while I hold these experiences I know that even this sensation is a symptom of my privilege.  I am a white person living in America during a time of racist police brutality, protests, and looting.  I have the luxury and means of working from home during a time of worldwide pandemic and mass unemployment.

There are players and perspectives in these events I easily emphasize with.  There are others are do not.   This morning, I had a very powerful experience of the Buddhist practice known as Tonglen.  I incorporated a few elements of metta, or loving-kindness meditation.  I have tried to reproduce this morning’s practice here.

Traditionally, Tonglen asks the practitioner to breathe in the suffering of a chosen person or group, and then to widen this circle of compassion.  I love tonglen for the ways it empowers me.  To recognize that my body can withstand and transform suffering is a wonderful thing.  Before starting this version there are a few things to think about.

It is likely going to be easy to find the group or person whose suffering you’d like to begin with.  I find it more difficult to find who I can widen that circle to.  Their is spriritual growth in rising to the challenge here or stretching the compassion muscles to someone who it is not easy and natural to feel compassion for.  However, we are limited and growing human beings.  If I am too ambitious about who I wish to widen my compassion to I come grinding to a hault.

Lots of powerful words have been written about the tension between action and contemplation.  My sense is that the goal here is to move us out of paralysis.  We can hold our compassion while moving forward in a certain direction which may not instantly and obviously be a win-win.  The goal here is not to come to terms with the idea that everyone is a little bit right.  Rather, the goal here is to hold the suffering of increasingly wide groups of people and move forward into the world decisively after having done so.

The Practice.

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath,.
  2.  Inhale deeply.
  3. Exhale deeply.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 at least two more times.
  5. With the next inhale, breathe in heat, claustrophia, and suffering.
  6. With the next exhale, breathe out spaciousness, c6 atoolness, and joy.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 at least two more times.
  8. With the next inhale, breathe in through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.  See, in your minds eye, the whole of your body taking in heat/claustrophobia/suffering.
  9. With the next exhale, breathe out through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 at least two more times.
  11. Now, as you continue this pattern, let this suffering be specifically for you that you inhale.  Let it be your claustrophobia, heat, suffering.
  12. As you exhale, let it to be joy and spaciousness for you.
  13. Continue this for as long as feels productive.
  14. There is a group or person close to your heart.  As you continue this deep breathing, this breathing through the whole of the body, bring them to mind fully.   Picture what they might be wearing, how they might stand, what they would wearing.  Is their a distinctive sound of their voice?  A smell which might be associated with them?  “See” them with all your senses.
  15. Inhale their suffering.
  16. Exhale them peace.
  17. Can you go deeper into their experiences: the suffering of their life, or even across the generations?  
  18. Continue with this for as long as feels productive.
  19. Bring to mind a wider group.  Perhaps one that is challenging to feel for.  Picture them with all the living specificity you brought to mind earlier, when it was easier.  Exhale your judgements as you seek to make them clear in your mind.
  20. Inhale their suffering, closeness, heat with your whole body.
  21. Exhale them peace, openess, coolness with your whole body.
  22. Continue for as long as feels productive.
  23. Now, in your mind, bring the suffering together of both people/groups.  Inhale the suffering of both groups.
  24. Exhale peace to both.
  25. Continue.  When you are ready, progress to the next step.
  26. Can you widen your compassion further?  If so, take in the suffering of more people with your inhalations.  Exhale peace to this widened circle.
  27. Release this practice.  Sit wordlessly for a while.
  28. Now, sit with the tension between contemplation and action.  Explore in your mind which steps you are ready to take to physically change the world.  

Exercise 66: Mindful Eating

Background:   Mindfulness asks us to sit with our sensory experiences.  It recognizes that our ability to taste, touch, and smell does not have the ability to look to the future or the past.  Nearly anything can be approached this way.   But eating is a good place to begin, particurly for sevens.  When Enneagram lore identifies ‘gluttony’ as the sin of sevens, they are careful to point out that this means more than food.  But food is certainly a part of it!

This is a practice that can be done with incredibly tiny parts of food.  To anticipate the eating, for example, of a single M&M can be a joyous, delightful thing.

As written below, this practice assumes that you will have something prepared to eat.  But there is no reason to begin feeling present once the food is prepared.  Being slow and aware during the process of getting the food ready is a great way to be.

 

The Practice 

 

  •  Take three deep breaths: inhalations and exhalations.  Finding yourself here.
  • Experience yourself as existing in the center of a vast network of relationships, all of which collaborated to bring this food to you.  Consider the person who sold it to you, the person who stocked the shelves.  The shippers who transformed it.  The farms that grew it or the factory that packaged it.  Allow yourself a moment of grattitude for this network of relationships; widen it even further if you wish; consider the people who trained and supported the shipper, the sales people, the farmers., for example.
  • Behold the food that you are going to eat.  Seek to see it as something truly unique.  This is not just an example of whatever sort of food you are eating (i.e. it’s not just an apple; it is one particular apple.)  
  • Turn the plate so that you can view this from some other angle.  Seeking to discover something about the appearance of this thing.
  • Smell the food.  Make yourself present to this scent.
  • Place a small bite of the food in your mouth.  Explore this texture with your tongue.  Don’t bite into it yet.
  • Note the flavor and the texture of this thing.  See if this texture and flavor are  unifrom.
  • Now, bite into this food slowly.  Notice the ways it is ground between your teeth.  Be present to the tastes and the textures that change.  Allow this chewed food to land on your tongue.
  • Tune in to the ways that this slowly grows uniform in taste and texture.  Notice any changes in your body as it reacts to the tastes.
  • When it is time, swallow this bite of food.
  • If there is more of the food left, take a look at the portion that remains.  Note how the bite you took out of it.  
  • Smell the food again.  How has the taste changed?
  •   Be present to other changes in your body.  Does your belly began to feel full?  Is your throat dry?  What taste remains even with the food no longer in your mouth?
  • Repeat steps 6-13 until the food has been eaten.
  • Sit in a moment of grattitude for this food. 

 

 

Enneagram Type 4

Background: Type fours have difficulty separating themselves from their emotions.  They tend to identify with these, conflating the feelings with the self. Contemplative practice can help to overcome this tendency.   As we observe our thoughts and feelings, we discover that we are something like the observer, not the things we are observing; if we were our feelings, we would be unable to take a vantage point “above” our emotions and watch them from a distance.

 

The Practice

 

  •  Place your feet flat on the floor.  
  • Let your breath come.  Observe it, without seeking to change it.
  • Become aware of your thoughts, feelings and observation.  Let your approach to the breath be a sort-of object lesson.  Approach your thoughts and feelings just as you approached your breath.
  • Observe the things you see in your mind and heart with a sense of gentle curiosity.  If you can, do not judge these. If you find yourself judging, release this as best as you can with the breath.  Try and avoid the hamster wheel of judging yourself for judging.
  • Now, became aware of the “I” doing the observing.  Note that this self is not the feelings being watched.
  • Sit with this awareness of the observing self.

 

 

 

Exercise 65: Hand Washing as a Spiritual Practice

Background:  The most important thing is that you wash your hands correctly.  See this link for more details.

Once those details are committed to, we can move into an attitude to have about hand washing.  (It was this amazing podcast that helped me to see this, by the way.)

There is something to be said about having a regular return to the here and now through out the day.  Christian Monks had a Liturgy of the hours which called them to their prayers periodically.  Zen Buddhist teachers are known to periodically strike novices to bring them into the present while meditating.  Some people like periodic chimes to help bring them to the present.  Mindfulness and Celtic Traditions both would have us identify common occurences like walking through a threshold as an invitation into the present.

In this time, when suddenly we are washing are hands as frequently as we should have been all along, we have a rather convenient and regularly occurring event that we might use as our gateway into being here, now.  Each time we wash our hands, we could pass those twenty seconds singing “happy birthday” or whatever.  Or we could use it as a time to fully in those moments.

What is even better is that this is an act of self care, an act of affirming our body, an act that carries sensory experiences with it.  Just as we might focus on the feeling of the air right below our nostril as we inhale, we might locate our full attention on the soft, sudsy warmth flowing over our hands.  Our senses– including touch– do not have the ability to regret the past or worry over the future.  This is why tuning into to sensory input is such a centering practice.

Whatever you do, please just make sure you passed the full 20 seconds!

The Practice:

Each time you wash your hands, simply be present to that wonderful moment.  Tune into the temperature and percussion of the water.  Feel the soapy slickness as the lather works up.  Try and find something new about this experience.  Catalog each little detail.  

Exercise 64: St John of the Cross and God’s Breath

Two of the most important aspects of my mystic’s journey have been the words of St. John of the Cross and the idea of God’s breath.

St. John of the Cross said, “The soul that is united and transformed  in God breathes God in God with the same divine breathing, with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.”  I am not really sure how it works.  But I think it’s something like this:

1.  Take three deep and cleansing breaths.

2.  Begin with the knowledge that your soul is breathing the very substance of God.

3.  Inhale the very material that forms God.

4.  Exhale the very stuff that forms God.

5.  Repeat these breaths two more times.

6.  As you hold this knowledge that the soul is breathing God into you, know that you are surrounded by God.

7.  Inhale, knowing that you are in God just as a fish is in the sea.

8.  Exhale, knowing that you are in God just as a fish is in the sea.

9.  Repeat steps seven and eight two more times.

10.  For three breaths, hold both sides of that equation: You are in God.  God is in you.

11.  Now, know that God breathes.  The God outside of you breathes.

12.  Inhale, knowing that God breathes just like that.

13.  Exhale, knowing that God breathes just like that.

14.  Repeat steps 12 and 13, two more times.

15.  With your next inhalation, visualize, again, how you breathe in God.

16.  With your next exhalation, visualize, again, how you breathe out the very stuff of God.

17.  Now, know that just as you breathe in God, God-outside-of-you is breathing in the very stuff of you.

18.  Exhale God, knowing that God-outside-of-you-exhales you.

19.  Repeat steps 17 and 18 two more times.

20.  Recall that God is within you, breathing as you inhale.

21.  Recall that God is within you, breathing, as you exhale.

22.  Now, impossibly, paradoxically, and perfectly: God-within-you…  breathes in the very stuff you are made of.  Inhale with this truth.

23.  Impossibly, paradoxically, perfectly:  God-within-you…. breathes out the very stuff you are made of.  Exhale this truth.

24.  Repeat any portion of this progression.  Or release the words entirely.

 

 

Enneagram Type 3

Background:  It has been said that 3’s make a conscious and controlled decision to put their feelings away.  This has been compared to a folder, where feelings to access later are filed away. Sometimes, they might even get around to feeling those feelings.  In many cases, being in the moment probably would have been better for the 3. This is a visualization that encourages 3’s to go back to their feelings and experience them.

 

The Practice:  Take three deep breaths.  Find yourself here, and now.

Close your eyes.  In your mind’s eye, see a file cabinet.  Give the cabinet a color. Look closely to see whether it is new.  How many drawers does this file cabinet have. Reach out to it, Feel the cabinet.  

This cabinet is the home of the folder for feelings to be accessed later.  Find yourself with a key in your hand. Of course, you are the only one with the keys to this particular cabinet.  The hanging folders are dark green and hanging. The folder with the memories to access later is right in front. If you would like, you can spend a moment flipping through the other folders.  It might be interesting to know what is there. It might be worthwhile to come back here later and explore the other folders. I suspect they have names like, “Feelings I will not allow myself to feel at all.”  and “Feelings I have worked my way through.”

Today, take out the folder for feelings to be accessed later.  Hold it carefully. Walk across the room. Find yourself in a comfortable chair, or a hammock even.  Respectfullty, carefully, open up the folder. The feelings you have been saving for later will wash over you.

Perhaps they will come on quickly.  Perhaps it will be a slow transition.  It might be an intense, even overwhelming mix of feelings.  If they become too much, you can close that folder. I do not think you will need to close that folder.

Have an attitude of curioisty about these feelings.  Explore them. You can feel them as deeply as you wish to.  Consider whether you know where and when these feelings are coming from.  Sit them for as long as you need.  

When you are ready, return the folder to the file cabinet.  It is quite likely you over use this folder. You can make a decision today, if you wish, to rely on this folder a little bit less in the future.  You can try and be mindful of those times when you put these feelings away and decide, even as you are tempted to file your feelings away, that you wish to experience them instead.

As you close the file cabinet, I hope that you feel a sense of peace.  These feelings which were waiting for you are no longer locked away, but they have been experienced by you.